Author Topic: A familiar tale of drug addiction (OxyContin) and denial  (Read 1688 times)

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A familiar tale of drug addiction (OxyContin) and denial
« on: March 31, 2012, 04:07:30 PM »
A familiar tale of drug addiction and denial

By Elizabeth Payne January 4, 2012 5:10 PM

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In 2007, three executives with the U.S. pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the synthetic opioid painkiller OxyContin, pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the risks of addiction from the drug. The company paid $600 million in fines and the executives paid an additional $34.5 million.

The company was found to have misled doctors and patients over a period of five years by claiming that OxyContin is less addictive than other narcotic painkillers because of its long-acting time-released formula. The executives continue to battle a provision of the plea bargain which banned them from doing business with Medicare or other taxpayer funded health care for 12 years. Meanwhile, even as the company faces other litigation, including class-action lawsuits from patients who became addicted to the drug, sales are soaring. In 2010, sales of OxyContin topped an eye-popping $3.5 billion.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. The rapid rise of OxyContin and other oxycodone-containing painkillers bears a striking resemblance to the history of tobacco ? from the official denials, even coverups, of its addictive properties by producers, to its devastating impact on public health.

But, while tobacco use has declined in recent decades largely as a result of tough prohibitions and controls that have helped change behaviour, OxyContin use is spreading like a many-headed hydra.

OxyContin could well be a tougher problem to tackle than tobacco: It is highly addictive and it serves a legitimate purpose for people with chronic pain, which means it will continue to be in use, which will make it difficult to keep away from addicts.

But the biggest barrier facing real control of OxyContin is political will.

As my recent series of stories from northwestern Ontario pointed out, OxyContin is devastating many remote fly-in communities. But at least in the North, there is a concerted strategy to deal with the public health crisis. The Nishnawbe Aski First Nation, the political organization that includes 49 bands in northwestern Ontario, has worked tirelessly to draw attention to the situation and seek solutions. It has worked with researchers, doctors and addiction experts to come up with a reasonable solution to help get addicts ? who make up 80 per cent of adults in some First Nations communities ? off the drug. All it needs now is better federal government support.

While Health Canada says it shares the concerns about oxycodone addiction in remote Northern communities, it has not taken a leadership role either on reserves or throughout Canada to deal with the public health crisis that is OxyContin. Nor have provincial governments done enough to address the impacts of prescription drug abuse.

And, while the stories out of communities such as Fort Hope, north of Thunder Bay, are shocking, they simply reflect the extreme edge of a larger and growing issue that is being felt in almost every community throughout Canada.

OxyContin addiction is not simply a First Nations or a northern issue. Throughout Ontario, methadone clinics are suddenly popping up in towns and cities to cope with the number of prescription drug addicts. Addiction rates in Ontario are soaring, say addiction experts. And addicts come from every level of society. In Ottawa, the rising numbers of prescription drug addicts have led to calls for a harm reduction program similar to Vancouver?s Insite. But, while heroin is the drug of choice on the streets of Vancouver, OxyContin is more likely to be abused in Ottawa.

The abuse of OxyContin is so pervasive in Canada that it even showed up in the Giller Prize-winning novel The Bishop?s Man, by Linden MacIntyre, when a priest at a rehab centre calls it ?the answer to everything.?

He continues: ?If heaven will feel that good. ? I can hardly wait. I couldn?t begin to describe it to you.?

He ends the conversation with a bitter laugh. ?Anytime you think you?ve found heaven on earth, someone comes along to tell you that, sorry, it?s really hell.?

What should be done? Better controls on who gets prescriptions for OxyContin, for one. In British Columbia, it is much harder to get a prescription for drugs like OxyContin because of electronic health records that allow doctors to see when a patient was last prescribed a drug. The Ontario government?s failure to come up with electronic health records system has added fuel to the prescription drug abuse crisis.

It will take a concerted effort from all levels of government to tackle the issue. It is a battle that may well lead some to ask whether the fines, paid by the manufacurers of the highly addictive painkillers, was enough.

Elizabeth Payne is a member of the Citizen?s editorial board.
? Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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